February 12, 2007 / 4:25 PM / in 12 years

WITNESS: Getting used to life with no working limbs

Last November, Reuters journalist Peter Apps wrote about being left paralysed in a road accident while he was covering the conflict in Sri Lanka. In the following story, he writes about the progress he has made and his expected return to work.

Reuters journalist Peter Apps works at his laptop computer using voice recognition equipment at a spinal injuries rehabilitation hospital in Aylesbury, south England, February 9, 2007. Last November, Apps wrote about being left paralysed in a road accident while he was covering the conflict in Sri Lanka. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Peter Apps

AYLESBURY (Reuters) - Five months after a minibus smash on the eastern front of the Sri Lankan civil war broke my neck and left me completely paralysed, the condition has long since lost its novelty value.

Since September, I have been unable to perform most of life’s most basic functions. I need to be fed, washed, dressed and turned frequently in bed to avoid pressure sores.

It is a uniquely isolating condition. I can’t reach out to touch anything, can’t even point at something I want the staff at my rehabilitation hospital to fetch.

Having spent the previous two years covering conflict, economics, business, disease, food crises and disaster in southern Africa and Sri Lanka, it was an abrupt and brutal change to find myself immobile in a small English town.

Yet one of the most striking things I have discovered is how much is possible.

I have learned to drive an electric wheelchair with my head. I navigated through throngs of pre-Christmas shoppers, barely damaging the displays in the packed stores we browsed through in a crowded but wheelchair-friendly mall.

I have taken up painting with a brush held in my teeth, producing some occasionally striking works. One of my fellow patients said they might win an art competition, but only in the six- to nine-year-old category.

The last story I wrote in November — about the accident itself and my evacuation to Britain — had to be dictated to friends and family. Through the marvel of voice recognition software, this piece was written and then revised entirely by me.

The ability to write e-mails and surf the Internet myself has helped me regain much mental independence and control over my life and it will be crucial in allowing me to return to work.

Obviously, it has been a tough time. Leaving aside the physical disability, there have been vast financial worries, personal disappointments and the disconcerting assumption by some that my useful life was effectively over.

Encouraging e-mails from colleagues and others from Baghdad to Beijing made a huge difference. More useful still was getting in touch with people with similar disabilities who had already achieved so much.


Victoria Brignell was paralyzed from the neck down in childhood after surgery to remove a tumor from her spine. Now, she is a producer for BBC Radio Four.

Colin Javens has a little more arm movement than I do, but not much. He drove a specially adapted four-wheel-drive vehicle from Britain to Cape Town, crossing North Africa, Sudan and the bandit-infested badlands of northern Kenya.

All I wanted was to go back to my job and my team in Sri Lanka and carry on trying to make sense of the increasingly hellish conflict; obviously in a wheelchair and at a very respectable distance from live battlefields.

My doctors told me it was clearly medically possible, but more cautious heads prevailed.

Instead I will be in London, writing about aid, development, food shortages, conflict and other issues for AlertNet, a humanitarian news Web site run by the Reuters Foundation.

I’ll still be working hard at recovery. Although I am unable even to lift the weight of my arms, some of the muscles are getting stronger.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Even if, as seems likely given the level of damage to my spinal cord, my hands remain useless, I may in time regain useful arm movement.

But for me, I will know I have bounced back when I’m back in a minibus in my wheelchair, heading out somewhere in the developing world to talk to people who are usually ignored about problems the world barely cares about.

Again, the doctors say it is totally feasible. And it certainly beats sitting in a room watching daytime television and feeling sorry for myself.

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